Prison: America’s Most Vile Export?

The U.S. incarceration problem is now the world’s to solve.

Penitenciária Federal de Catanduvas in Brazil (Jamil Bittar / Reuters)

Behind the bars of a prison in Brazil, the federal agent on duty sidled up to me.

“You’re getting a good report, yes?” he said, smiling at my notebook.

“You have many supermaxes in America. Many trips there to make this one.” He gestured toward the barbed wire, offering scant details about just how many trips and precisely when they transpired. “And now you are come to see ours. Funny.”

I didn’t think it was funny.

I was visiting the Penitenciária Federal de Catanduvas, Brazil’s first federal super-maximum security prison, opened in 2007 to house 208 solitary confinement cells. The “supermax,” as this model is known, is generally characterized by a severe lack of activities or communal spaces, a powerful administration not subject to outside review, and, in its starkest difference from lower-security prisons, extreme solitary confinement for all its residents. The imposing edifice cost $18 million to build, was followed by the construction of four more identical supermaxes, and thus represents Brazil’s current, and unprecedented, investment in incarceration. Yet it looks like a slice of the United States plunked down on foreign shores. The moment I laid eyes on it, I almost forgot what country I was in.

It was familiar, this forgetting. Over the span of two years, I visited prisons in nearly a dozen countries around the world. Yet most of these visits triggered a lurid state of déjà vu: different country, same chilling structure.

In Rwanda, Gasabo Prison—a stately orange-brick building laced in barbed wire and crowned by a turret-like guard tower—reminded me of prisons in upstate New York, where I teach. Those, in turn, resemble the severely overcrowded Tower Street Adult Correctional Centre in Kingston, Jamaica, a blood-red brick and concrete structure with a graceful sentry box and 20-foot-high walls, built in 1845 for 650 people and now home to about 1,700. That Jamaican penitentiary, meanwhile, doesn’t look vastly different from Fremantle Prison, in Western Australia, built during the 1850s by “convict” laborers as the region’s biggest colonial prison.

These similarities are not coincidental. They’re the result of a deadly game of global copycatting whose origins lie in the United States. Prison is not only one of America’s most catastrophic national experiments—it’s also among the country’s most vile exports.

The most glaring example of this dynamic involves the supermax model I explored in Brazil. America invented this model. In 1787, the Quakers experimented with solitary cells at the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia; in 1829, Eastern State Penitentiary was opened nearby as an all-solitary facility, modeled after monasteries (those incarcerated covered their heads with monk-like hoods and were given Bibles to read). In 1983, a Marion, Illinois, prison became America’s first to adopt a 23-hour-a-day cell-isolation policy in its designated “control unit.” As the U.S. prison population soared and tough-on-crime rhetoric intensified over the next two decades, other states followed suit. California built Pelican Bay, where as of last year over 200 incarcerated men have been in solitary for over a decade; Colorado’s so-called Alcatraz of the Rockies, ADX Florence, is home to a man who has spent 32 years in solitary, mostly under a “no human contact” order that at times bars him from interacting even with prison officials. By 1999, there were 57 supermaxes in 34 U.S. states.

Today, iterations of the supermax exist in at least nine countries, from Australia to Mexico. In Brazil, where the 550,000-strong prison population is among the fastest-growing in the world, they come at a tremendous cost to taxpayers: I was told by the superintendent that the annual price per prisoner at Catanduvas is a whopping $120,000 a year, compared to an average of $36 per prisoner per year in Brazil’s impoverished state system, where the incarcerated are often left to feed and clothe themselves.

In New Zealand, planning documents for Auckland Prison reveal that its supermax unit was modeled after Marion; South Africa’s two supermax facilities, opened after the end of apartheid, were a product of then-cabinet minister Sipo Mzimela’s advisors’ study tours of both FDX Florence and Marion. The American Correctional Association has even published a guide to opening and running supermaxes, “Supermax Prisons: Beyond the Rock.”

Generally speaking, supermaxes represent the turn from progressive, rehabilitation-oriented movements of the early 20th century to the punitive approach that the United States—and, quite often following America’s lead, many countries—have taken since the 1970s. Yet according to a 2006 Urban Institute report, there is little evidence that supermaxes are successful at reducing crime, prison violence, or recidivism rates. The report called for more research about the fiscal and human costs of what has become a brutal regime around the world.

It’s a regime that the United States has been exporting in various incarnations since its birth. During the 18th century, European thinkers began circulating ideas about criminals paying dues in time and isolation, as opposed to the physical punishment that had been the norm until then; they envisioned a punishment that was neater, more contained, and more rational—more in line with the so-called Age of Reason than beheadings or banishment. The U.S.—freshly independent and eager to prove itself more progressive than its former colonizer—actualized these ideas, erecting two landmark prisons in the mid-19th century: Philadelphia’s Eastern, grounded in solitary confinement, and New York’s Auburn, whose contrasting model involved slave-like hard labor.

America’s prison prototypes fast went international, as 19th-century European scholars and leaders made prison tours a vital stop on visits across the pond. Fredrick William IV of Prussia came, followed by rulers of Saxony, Russia, and the Netherlands, and commissioners from France, Austria, Holland, Denmark, and Sweden. Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens were the most vocal tourists at U.S. prisons, broadcasting the horror of what they saw there. John Daughtry, Jamaica’s general inspector of prisons between 1841 and 1861, modeled Tower Street after Eastern: “No sounds but of the hammer, the axe or the saw,” he wrote in an 1844 report.

In this way, prisons weaved their way into the fabric of other cultures throughout Europe and, via its colonies, around the world, to countries like Spain, Colombia, China, Japan, and India. Early-20th-century prison-building across the African continent represented colonial efforts to reinforce hierarchies in the most literal of ways. The very look of the prisons was telling: Here were orderly, Western-looking edifices seeking to impose discipline on those “unruly” natives.

Nowadays, prison privatization is another U.S. “innovation” that has spread across the world, particularly to Australia, which holds the world’s largest proportion of prisoners in private facilities—about 19 percent of its 33,000 or so prisoners—and boasts a wholly private immigrant-detention system. From Thailand—where I spent time in women’s prisons overseen by an NGO headed by the princess of Thailand herself—to Brazil and even progressive Norway, where I met a young incarcerated man serving 16 years for heroin use, experts recited the same chorus: U.S.-style draconian drug policies, mandatory penalties, and “one size fits all” punishments are packing prisons in their countries, too. The end result is that between 2008 and 2011, the prison population grew in 78 percent of the countries included in the World Prison Population List compiled by the International Centre for Prison Studies. As of 2013, some 10.2 million people worldwide were behind bars, many convicted of nothing, waiting years to be tried and lacking access to legal assistance.

At the heart of all this is a severely tragic irony. Mounting evidence suggests that the United States may finally begin to undo its plague of prisons. Everyone from Bill and Hillary Clinton to the conservative Right On Crime movement is lashing out against America’s costly incarceration addiction; President Barack Obama’s condemnatory speech on prison reform and visit to a federal prison in July were watershed moments.

But while America may be starting to slay its demons, it has created a monster with tentacles entrenched in communities across the globe. Mass criminalization of minorities and the poor, supermaxes and solitary, the prison-industrial complex—these are now not only global realities, they’re growing global realities, an American nightmare from which the world is not waking.